Asia 2005 : Dubai

All around me there was still the same luminous, sun-drenched countryside. The glare from the sky was unbearable. - Albert Camus, L'Etranger

Dubai is hot. Not in a British "whew, bit of a scorcher" kind of way, but in an eye-popping "I CAN FEEL MY SCALP MELTING" searing heat that could fry an egg at fifty paces. I'd shared my dorm room with a guy in a long white cloak and flowing headdress. He was better prepared than me. Coming out of the glitzy youth hostel, the heat hit me like a hammer. I was carrying two bottles of water, which lasted me about as far as the bus stop. I vomited over the floor of the bus, the two pints of water I had just drunk coming straight back up again. It was not an auspicious start.

Down in the souk I was trying to analyse Dubai. It was all a little controlled. The souk lacked the excitement and bustle of the bazaars of Istanbul. For the boat ride across Dubai Creek, rather than a noisy engine, solar power sped the abra across the water.

Where was Arabia? French hypermarket Carrefour was in town (and sold French strawberry tarts and religieuses), as well as South Indian meals chain Saravana Bhavan. There was even a Marks and Spencers.

Via air-con souks, air-con malls, air-con buses and foot power in the clammy heat, I headed to Jumeirah, home of the most luxurious hotel in the world: the Burj Al Arab, a towering sail of a building which rises 321 metres above the Arabian Gulf. A projection out of the side of the building, which is supposed to represent an Arab dhow provided a helipad for the use of guests. Roger Federer and Andre Agassi had recently played a few points on it as a publicity stunt.

I had read that it cost $25 just to go and have a nose around the hotel, so I thought I'd try the nonchalant approach and walk straight in. All went well for about six yards.

"Hello, sir" (in a "stop, thief" tone of voice)
"Ah, hello there"
"Do you have a reservation for the Burj Al Arab?"
"You mean this isn't the International Youth Hostel?"

In search of some respite from the afternoon sun I took the bus to the end of the line. Everybody else in the bus seemed to be an Indian immigrant worker. While the front two rows were reserved for women, I don't think I ever saw a woman on a bus in Dubai. Our destination was a place called "The Gardens" where I presumed I could relax under a tree in a pleasant green park. No, in typical Dubai fashion The Gardens were a large shopping mall. But what a mall! It was split into five zones: Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Indian and Andalucian; each one profusely decorated.

You could wander down an Arabian street with trompe l'oeil stars twinkling in a fake sky, or marvel under a huge decorated dome that would have graced a cathedral. At the centre of the dome was placed a branch of Starbucks.

It was this kind of incongruity that lay at the heart of what troubled me about Dubai. Shops sold the skimpiest of bikinis as women in burqas walked past. Money from oil had allowed Dubai to whisk past other countries in terms of development. Improbably sized skyscrapers emerged from the featureless desert plain. The haves were whisked around in air-conditioned limousines from mall to mall, while the have-nots sweated it out.

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